From the Trail to the Hill: Does My Campaign Experience Mean Nothing?

What’s worse than working in a dysfunctional Capitol Hill office? Not having the opportunity to work in one at all. And for a number of wannabe staffers, the road to Capitol Hill is paved with obstacles. Today’s question comes from a spirited campaign worker who wonders why his or her skills on the trail haven’t earned a congressional ID badge.

Q. I need to vent a little bit. I have spent the last 10 years, a HUGE chunk of my adult life, on campaigns helping getting congressmen, state reps. and governors elected to their office. However, now I want to transition from campaigns.

To be fair, I have been a field director for a majority of my time, but I learned a lot about politics and legislative process, and if that isn’t enough, I also have a bachelor’s in political science; all to be just shot down or never ever called for an interview for a legislative aide position.

It’s funny really, almost ironic. I help get people elected, and the benchmark for working as a legislative aide on the Hill is: Must Have Hill Experience — This is not an entry level position.

Two things: 1) How am I supposed to get said experience if no one will take a chance on me? 2) Do my 10 years in campaigns and politics mean nothing? Sure, I could be new to the whole game of legislative affairs, being an aide or assistant; but one thing is for sure, I am not an idiot, either.  

A. You have the proverbial chicken-and-egg problem: How can you get a Hill job without Hill experience, and how can you get Hill experience without a Hill job?

I sympathize with this. I’ve written about it before, but I think it’s worth going over again.

First, all those people you helped get elected? Talk to them. Specifically, talk to the ones who are in Congress. Whether you knocked on doors, cut turf or raised the cash, you worked on their campaigns, and your formidable experience helped get them where they are. So ask for a meeting, preferably in person. Use this opportunity to thank your former boss for the previous experience and ask if he or she can help you with your next career goal: a job on Capitol Hill.

Second, talk to the people with whom you worked to get those guys elected. Say you worked for Barack Obama, or someone who runs a campaign like a Fortune 500 company and might not know the names of all of their hard-working staffers. Talk to your direct bosses there. Ask them to put you in touch with someone who can help you get a job. Hill experience is important, but so is a word-of-mouth recommendation.

Third, if you can, get that Hill experience. If your schedule allows, volunteer at a district or local office, or if you’re in the D.C. area, ask to spend a few hours each week in an office helping out until you land a full-time job. Your previous work experience and connections should be able to yield something, and just a few hours a week can add up to enough Hill experience to break in.

And what happens if you’ve already done all of that? Or if your well of connections has run dry even as the campaign chum collects dust in the back of your car?

Here is what you can do: Sign up for one more campaign, but be up front about your expectations. Tell your prospective boss that you want to be his or her future staffer. Be very clear what you’re looking for, and don’t sign on if it doesn’t seem feasible. After all, your 10-plus years of experience can certainly give you enough credibility to pick a campaign that will be the best fit for you — and this time you’ll go in with a specific end goal in mind.

Got a question, concern or complaint about navigating life on Capitol Hill? Email us at hillnavigator@rollcall.com or submit online at roll.cl/12tvZqI. All submissions are treated anonymously.